I am used to traveling to Europe in September as for many years I attended the Premiere Vision fabric trade show in Paris. Since most of Europe goes on vacation for the entire month of August, come the beginning of September seemingly every Parisian is back in town. The French call this la rentree, or the return. It is the start of the school year; and the start of a new season. Restaurants, boutiques, exhibits, films and cultural events are all opening in Paris and around the country.
With that in mind and history on my side, a trip to France in early September seemed like a good idea. The prices are down and the crowds (of tourists) are gone. We had been to Bassin d’Arcachon (Arcachon Basin) twice before, and loved the landscape and the vibe. And although the Bassin boasts many grand houses and wealthy residents, it is the antithesis of bling-bling. I found a nice smallish house with a pool for rent close to the beach in Arcachon, and planned for six days of sun, sand and delicious food. A few days in Paris seemed like a good idea, too. And it was.
I decided to spend one night in Paris as the Bassin is a hour’s drive from Bordeaux. We were taking the train, which left from the Gare de Montparnasse, so we spent one night nearby. The hotel is around the corner from the famous cafes of the quartier. Luckily our room was ready when we arrived.
One of my favorite places to have lunch is the restaurant Villalys, with tables in the garden of the Palais-Royal. The food is slightly Moroccan. It was impossible to ignore that all of Europe has been living with drought conditions. The leaves of the trees at the center of the garden had yellowed, with many leaves covering the ground. Thankfully, the rain has returned and hopefully the grass will be green(er) again.
We were staying around the corner from La Coupole. The brasserie had been a favorite hang out of mine years ago. Times changed, the fashion crowd moved on, and after living through hard times La Coupole changed hands; and has been tastefully renovated. The food is excellent, and not over-the-top expensive. We had a choucroute de la mer and a choucroute de La Coupole. Yum.
The TGV to Bordeaux was quick, but not pleasant. The Gare de Montparnasse was crowded, and badly signed. If you are traveling with luggage, I suggest flying or driving. Once we arrived, we rented a car and headed to Arcachon. Our house was on the Allée Gabriele d’Annunzio — apparently he lived in this area. We were close to the water. There is a lot of beach in this part of France. It stretches from La Rochelle to Biarritz on the Atlantic. And it is a fine, white, sandy beach.
There is a road that goes along the water from the port of Arcachon to the Dune of Pilat. We were headed south for dinner. You can basically walk the approximately six miles from the Dune to the port. There are small roads that lead from the main road down to the water. Beautiful homes line the beach. The shadow of a coast that you see is the town of Cap Feret on the other side of the Bassin. It is beautiful there, too.
You can dine at multiple Michelin starred restaurants for hundreds of euros a person, or enjoy the many restaurants and cafes that offer good food and a fun atmosphere. Café Ha(a)ïtza is a large restaurant that is full of families and people of all ages. We split some foie gras to start and had some local specialties. Fish for me and a poulet grande-mere for Michael. They do not take reservations, and the menu changes daily. Everything is well priced. The staff was young and friendly, and the guests happy.
It was cooler and cloudier the next day. We headed into Arcachon to go to the market. The town grew in the 1860s after the railroads brought wealthy Parisians. The architecture evokes the Belle Epoque, with houses like this one above, and much more extravagant mansions hidden in the verdant greenery. Sadly, we did not have time to explore the Ville d’Hiver nor the La Ville d’Eté.
There is a market with clothing, jewelry, bits of decor and more in the square in front of Les Halles d’Arcachon. Shops and restaurants line the square, which also has unusual architecture.
The market is quite large, and housed in an open building. There were beautiful vegetables, cheeses, and all sorts of local products. With the dollar at parity with the euro, prices were great. Also almost everything is locally grown. The plan was to cook some of our meals as well as enjoy some of the many restaurants.
The locally raised products were sold by pleasant well-informed patrons, and every stand was family owned. This family even made its own sausage. And the meat was cut to order.
The selection of fish was wide-ranging. Sole is one of my favorite fish and can be a challenge at times to get in New York. The sole was $21.00 a pound. Pas cher. A nice gentleman took the skins off, and we had a tasty sole meunière that night sitting on our terrace.
This beach was a four- to five-minute walk from our house, and during the week it was empty. This one is technically in the Bassin. Even though it was a bit cold, Michael opted for a swim. That was a learning experience. The tides are strong in the Bassin. When the tide is coming in or going out you need to be a very strong swimmer to stay in one place.
We stopped around the corner in Le Moulleau and checked out some stores. Everything was marked down, as it is almost fall. Superdry is new to the area, and has fun street-wise clothing.
Zig et Plage is one of the fun home decor stores in town. The items are chosen for a laid back life. The lighting on sale throughout the store was creatively conceived and well designed.
The next morning we went for a walk on our beach. It was low tide, and many boats rested on the sandbar. Walking among the tide pools was easy on the feet. The blue skies were soon gone.
We headed back to the market for lunch. There were two popular restaurants, one at either end. Le Bouchon du Marche is famed for its steaks and wine. They start serving steaks, magrets and pied du porc at 9 a.m. Wanting something a bit lighter we went to the L’Oyster Bar at other end of the market. These two were shucking hundreds of oysters for the hungry clientele.
The tables were all full of people enjoying plateaus of oysters and other seafood. L’Oyster Bar also serves a very rich and delicious soupe de poissons, with croutons, cheese and aioli. I was very lucky to have scored the last bowl. The day was a bit chilly, and the soup was perfect antidote.
The day had turned overcast so we decided to explore the downtown. The selection of clothing left much to be desired, which was surprising as this entire area is home to many wealthy residents. Most of the shops were the mid-level French high street brands. There was, however, an abundance of stores selling ice cream, gelatos, crepes and even a place that sells only cream puffs.
Le Comptoir Arcachonnais is full of regional products. The Bordeaux wine growing areas — think Médoc, Saint-Émilion, and more — are located just over an hour away, whereas the wines found here are grown closer to town. Aside from wine — local sweets, chocolates, foie gras, jams, pates and local treats.
Ikks and Aigle are some of the preppy clothing brands in town. What was also lovely were the treescapes along the streets of Arcachon. Topiary trees thrive in all the towns, along with palms and flowering semi-tropical ones.
We came back into Arcachon for dinner at the end of the port. The wide beach just keeps going. And the pink sky at night meant a sunny day tomorrow. We ate at Chez Pierre, across a walkway from the beach. The food (French comfort) was excellent. Again the restaurant was full of families. Reservations needed.
The next morning, a Friday, was gorgeous. A walk at the Dune du Pilat was the plan for the morning. The area is made for bicycles and boasts wide bike paths everywhere in the community. It’s easy to rent bikes by the day or the week. Large houses hide in the vegetation along all the roads.
The great forest fires raged behind the Dune du Pilat this summer. The fires went south, and burned forests and campgrounds. The dune is over one and one-half miles long, and 325 feet high. You can swim at the foot of the dune, or hike on it. It is the biggest sand dune in Europe, and it moves.
There are WWII bunkers along all the beaches. The ones here are heavily graffitied. Until a few years ago, one of them hosted the cool Blockhaus, serving breakfast and lunch on the beach. Bring it back!
Across from the Dune there are more shifting sand dunes in the sea. Rent a boat privately or take a navette for a picnic. The views are stunning, and the sea picks up the colors of the sky.
Club Plage Pereire is a a lovely wooden restaurant on Plage Pereire, north of Le Molleau. There are tables inside, and tables in the sand. Reservations are a must. Especially on weekends. We were there on a Friday, and the restaurant filled up in the afternoon. The langoustines were delicious, as was the signature terrine. It is an extremely relaxing place to have lunch and spend the afternoon. Dinner was chez nous, with brochettes of duck and peaches on the BBQ.
Saturday morning was warm and sunny. The beach was much more crowded, even though it was September. The bluer the sky, the bluer the water.
Le Bikini is a fun restaurant on the beach serving breakfast, lunch and dinner til 2 a.m. It is a mix of families and friends. The menu had oysters, of course, but also some things I had not seen in France. I had a pluma de pata negra, which is a cut of acorn-fed Iberico pork that was delicious. After lunch we had a nice walk on the beach, and then headed back to our pool as it was getting hot.
On every trip here, we had driven by L’Authentic. There were always trucks outside as the restaurant does a lot of catering. You can eat outside on the terrace behind the grill or in the large dining room. Inside is a bit more formal. We chose the market menu, which was only 38 euros. The most expensive menu was the lobster menu at 90 euros, but it was a bit too much lobster. There were several amuse-bouches, a tempura of tuna to start, a delicious supreme de pintade (guinea hen) and a mille-feuille for dessert. Another outstanding meal.
It was even warmer on Sunday when we hit a large park that leads to one of the beaches located in Pyla.
Families were everywhere. And the beach went on forever. The Dune of Pilat is visible at the back. If you have the energy, you could walk all the way there. Even though this beach is technically on the Atlantic, you rarely see huge waves. The natural beauty of the area is visible everywhere.
Houses are visible through the trees on this beach. They have pools overlooking the beach, with pool houses and terraces. People were moving between the houses and the beach enjoying their lives. Rarely a mask was seen here, and life seems to have returned to normal.
We had lunch at another specialty of the Bassin, the cabanes d’ostréiculteurs, or oyster growers cabanes. This one is called 12Zen. The cabanes are on both sides of the Bassin, and are located on the water. They are owned by the oyster fishermen, with tables out over the water. Oysters, baby crevettes, pates and lot of white wine are on the menu. Different condiments and peppers are also served. A simple concept with the freshest food imaginable.
The stay was entirely too short as we were heading back to Paris in the morning. I am still trying to figure out when we will be able to return to this slice of paradise on the Atlantic.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.